Photo credit: Ian R Marshall
As I sat in the nave of the Cathedral listening appreciatively to Bach’s Mass in B minor in March 2018, I never imagined that I would be singing there in March 2019. Friends and former members returned to augment the cathedral choir for a performance of Tallis’s Spem in Alium. This unaccompanied motet is only about ten minutes long but, with its forty independent voice parts arranged in eight five-part choirs, it makes such demands on the singers that it does not often feature in choral concerts. Every live performance is a special experience, difficult to capture in sound recordings, and I couldn’t resist the invitation to take part.
In the second half of the concert, the augmented Cathedral Choir and the Helix Ensemble performed Handel’s Dixit Dominus, a lively five-part setting of Psalm 110. As part of our preparation for Dixit Dominus we joined the cathedral choir’s regular Friday evening rehearsals, and it was a pleasure to listen to them at work on the music for Sunday mass. But for Spem in Alium the singers could only be fully assembled on the evening before the concert, so everything had to come together in a remarkably short time. That this was possible is a testament to the skill of the singers and their director Alex Patterson.
As we moved into the Cathedral on the day of the concert, we saw that the audience in the nave was to be surrounded by groups of singers in a horseshoe running from north to south. I realised that my allocated spot in choir four was to be due east, so I would not escape the gaze of the audience. But this turned out to be a good vantage point from which to appreciate the music. Out of the silence single alto and soprano voices emerged from the north side-aisle, soon joined by everyone in the first of the eight choirs, and a Mexican wave of singing passed clockwise then anticlockwise around the audience.
Although in theory I should have been able to sing at the right time just by counting beats, there are such long waits between some entries that I didn’t trust myself to rely on that alone. In most choral works the conductor can help cue the singers, but there are so many independent entries in Spem in Alium that this is not feasible much of the time. For me it was listening to the soprano singers in other choirs that helped me to keep my place in the intricate musical texture. So perhaps my years as a listener came in useful after all.